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Compassion, poetry are among Tennessee Williams's gifts to the stage

The late Tennessee Williams once turned the tables on a television interviewer with a question of his own: ''Why doesn't anyone ask me about the comedy in my plays?''

It was typical of Williams - a quietly diffident, courteous, and humorous man - to challenge preoccupation with only the downbeat aspects of his work while overlooking elements he considered characteristic and important.

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On reflection, it is true that all of the darkest of Williams's more than 24 full-length stage pieces display his comic flair, or at least his comic touch. In some of the early, short pieces the comedy is lightheartedly sunny. Elsewhere , it could range from the ironic to the outrageous. Yet inevitably the deeper and more disturbing elements received the most attention. They informed his achievements as contemporary American drama's master of poetic realism.

Thomas Lanier Williams, the Mississippi-born writer who later chose to be known as ''Tennessee,'' had his first full-length play produced in 1940. It was ''Battle of Angels,'' a sensational blending of mythological and sacred themes and symbols.

After closing the tragedy in the face of negative and shocked reaction to the Boston premiere, the sponsoring Theater Guild wrote a letter to subscribers in which it acknowledged: ''The play was more of a disappointment to us than to you , but who knows whether the next one by the same author may prove a success.''

Within five years, Williams proved the Theater Guild right with ''The Glass Menagerie.'' That delicate ''memory play'' was a landmark contribution to the theater and is still considered by many admirers to be Williams's most beautiful and accomplished piece of stagecraft. Williams himself regarded ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' (1947) as his masterpiece and felt that the surrealistic ''Camino Real'' (1953) contained some of his best writing.

Equally important with the poetic quality of his writing was Williams's theatricalism and his talent as a creator of extraordinary roles, particularly for women. Those who witnessed them would never be likely to forget Laurette Taylor's Amanda Wingfield in ''The Glass Menagerie'' or Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in ''Streetcar'' (or Vivien Leigh in the movie version).

The roster would also include Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, and Ben Gazzara in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof''; Geraldine Page in ''Summer and Smoke''; and Miss Page and Paul Newman in ''Sweet Bird of Youth.''

In 1951 the rising young Maureen Stapleton demonstrated her gifts as the fanatic but susceptible Sicilian-American widow of ''The Rose Tattoo.'' Williams had written the role for Anna Magnani, who played it in subsequent film version. He called his romantic comedy drama ''a warmer and happier play than anything I've written.''

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Nearly 10 years later, he would be represented by the even warmer and happier , if slighter and more conventional, ''Period of Adjustment.'' In 1961 ''The Night of the Iguana'' reflected what Williams regarded as his more positive attitude. He wrote of it: ''Bestiality still exists, but I don't want to write about it any more. I want to be concerned with the kinder aspects of life.''

More often, of course, Williams was concerned with its crueler aspects. His typical characters are at best wishful dreamers, at worst willful self-destroyers. They are the tortured, the lonely, the brutalized, the alcohol-or drug-addicted - the troubled human byproducts of a troubling time. If his losers had a redeeming strength, it was a certain kind of desperate gallantry or even a determination that sometimes turned losers into survivors.

Williams's most recent stage works have not achieved the acclaim that marked the first period of his career. His latest Broadway drama, ''Clothes for a Summer Hotel,'' about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, closed in 1980 after only 15 performances. The critical rejection distressed and embittered him. Off Broadway , however, his ''Small Craft Warnings'' (in which he appeared briefly) and ''A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur'' were appreciatively received. Meanwhile, the major and even minor works have continued to be revived.

Shortly before Williams's passing last Friday, I happened to telephone his representative concerning the playright's whereabouts and activities. I was told that Williams was ''busy writing and traveling,'' which could serve as a shorthand summary of his life.

With Tennessee Williams, writing was as much a compulsion as a vocation. He epitomized the old adage that ''plays aren't written - they're rewritten.'' Williams wrote and rewrote - and then rewrote the rewrites. The process could go on for years. It might result in at least two produced versions of the same play , as in the case of ''Summer and Smoke'' into ''Eccentricities of a Nightingale'' and ''Battle of Angels'' into ''Orpheus Descending.''

In the course of a career that served a generation of actors and inspired many of its writers, Williams received recognitions appropriate to his accomplishment: two Pulitzer Prizes, four New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, and other honors. His writings include two novels, books of poetry and short stories, screenplays, and the ''Memoirs'' in which he dealt candidly with his homosexuality as well as with the drug and alcohol addictions which on occasion led to his hospitalization.

As an artist, Tennessee Williams was humane, sensitive, and compassionate. Reduced to a single statement his credo might be summed up in Blanche DuBois's condemnation of cruelty as ''the one unforgivable thing. . . .''

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